- the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of city, state or empire
- the assumption that all citizens (except for the Jews) were Christian by birth
- the development of a ‘sacral society’, where there was no effective distinction between sacred and secular, where religion and politics were intertwined
- the definition of ‘orthodoxy’ as the common belief, determined by socially powerful clerics supported by the state
- the imposition of supposedly ‘Christian morality’ on the entire population (although normally Old Testament moral standards were applied)
- a political and religious division of the world into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’
- the defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism, and by warfare to protect or extend Christendom
- a hierarchical ecclesiastical system, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, which was analogous to the state hierarchy and was buttressed by state support
- a generic distinction between clergy and laity and relegation of laity to a largely passive role
- obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance
- infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into this Christian society
- the imposition of obligatory tithes to fund this system.
In the early years of the fourth century the Roman Empire was in turmoil. After centuries of dominance, the empire was showing signs of age – the bureaucracy was creaking, moral standards were low, the old forms of religion seemed empty, and barbarians were attacking the frontiers.Despite almost three hundred years of marginality and intermittent persecution, and despite still being an illegal society, the church was one of the few remaining stabilizing and civilising influences. Their sacrificial care for victims during a recent outbreak of plague had won them many admirers, even if their convictions still seemed strange.In 312, there were two claimants to the imperial throne. Maxentius held the capital city, Rome, and most of Italy, but Constantine held most of the Western empire, had the support of most of the army and had marched on Rome. In October 312, he was camped north of the city preparing for what would be the show-down with his rival, but worried because he did not have the resources to sustain a long siege.Then something unusual happened. According to Christian writers of the time, Constantine had a vision, in which he saw the sign of the cross with the sun rising behind it, and saw or heard the words in hoc signo vince (“In this sign conquer”). Constantine, who came from a family of sun-worshippers, had the sign of the cross painted on his soldiers’ equipment.Shortly after this, to everyone’s surprise, Maxentius decided to risk a battle outside the city walls and Constantine’s army won a decisive victory, forcing their opponents back across the Milvian Bridge into the city. Constantine took the city and became emperor, apparently convinced that the God of the Christians had given him victory.Historians have argued for centuries about whether Constantine was genuinely converted, but what is certain is that he saw Christianity as a force that could unite and revive his crumbling empire. Within a year the persecution ended, as Constantine issued an edict of toleration, Christianity became a legal religion and Constantine invited church leaders to assist him in making the Roman Empire a Christian society.In the following decades it seemed like revival – massive church growth, wonderful new church buildings, changes in laws and customs, church leaders taking on political and social roles, Constantine ruling as a Christian emperor. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become the state religion, the only legal religion, and it was pagans who were being persecuted.The system known as christianitas (Christendom) was coming into being, an alliance between church and state that would dominate Europe for over a thousand years and that still impacts the way Christians think and act.
The Christendom Shift
Two opposite assessments have been made of what happened in the fourth century:
· That this was a disaster that perverted the church, compromised its calling and hindered its mission, achieving through infiltration what 300 years of persecution had failed to achieve. That this was not the triumph of the church over the empire but the triumph of the empire over the church.
[I now believe that there is another important aspect to consider – to what extent did God recognise that something like this would happen? Perhaps God gave people what they wanted, just as he had previously given Israel the king that they asked for!].
The basis of the Constantinian system was a close partnership between the church and the state. The form of this partnership might vary, with either partner dominant, or with a balance of power existing between them. There are examples from the 4th century onwards of emperors presiding over church councils and of emperors doing penance imposed by bishops. Throughout the medieval period, power struggles between popes and emperors resulted in one or the other holding sway for a time. But the Christendom system assumed that the church was associated with the Christian status quo and had vested interests in its maintenance. The church provided religious legitimisation for state activities, and the state provided secular force to back up ecclesiastical decisions.
Christendom seems to have no place for elements of a New Testament vision such as:
- believers’ churches comprised only of voluntary members
- believers’ baptism as the means of incorporation into the church
- a clear distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’
- evangelism and mission (except by military conquest or missions to heathen nations)
- the supranational vision of the new Christian ‘nation’
- faith in Christ as the exercise of choice in a pluralistic environment where other choices are possible without penalty.
- ‘church’ is defined territorially and membership in it is compulsory
- the voluntary communities called ‘churches’ in the New Testament are now called ‘sects’
- a preoccupation with the immortality of the soul replaces the expectation of the kingdom of God, and the concept of the kingdom of God is either reduced to a purely historical entity, coterminous with the state church, or relegated to a future realm
- the church abandons its prophetic role for a primarily priestly role, providing spiritual support for groups and individuals, sanctifying social occasions and state policies
- discipleship is interpreted in terms of good citizenship, rather than commitment to the ways of the kingdom of God
- the church becomes primarily concerned about social order rather than social justice
- persecution is imposed by those claiming to be Christian rather than upon them.